11 Jun

Week 3 – Caldon Canal

Evening in Leek

Day 15 – A Day Out In Leek

Wednesday was a greyish day but largely dry. As we had decided to stay a second night we were able to have a good look round Leek. The part by the canal moorings is south of the town. It is low-lying and mainly a nature reserve and playing fields. It is a really nice area with lots of scope to exercise the dog and a well-made towpath for walkers and cyclists. The town itself lies at the very top of a hill some twenty five minutes’ walk from the mooring. Between them are a couple of large scrapyards, a light industrial estate, a large Morrison’s and a steep ascent. Our local informant was somewhat indignant that visiting boaters tended to moor, go to the supermarket and then leave, when Leek had so much more to offer. We could see how, having seen the noisy, ugly trading estate and being aware that it was a hard climb along busy arterial roads to get to the town centre, many people might not feel it was worth it.

That is a shame because Leek does have quite a lot to offer. There is an old corn mill built by James Brindley, who is more famous for engineering much of the canal system. There are other premises that appear to be old cotton mills and the like, while the dominant red sandstone buildings always look a bit gritty. However, while I don’t know if it is true, the impression we gained was that this was not a major industrial centre. It seemed more like a place where the Potteries’ captains of industry had their homes and spent their money rather than where their industry was conducted.

The town has a nice, busy centre with indoor and outdoor markets and plenty of shops, most of which are open. As far as we could see there were very few of the ‘normal’ high street shops. Boots, Millets and WH Smith had a presence, of course. For the most part, though, the shops we saw were independent, individual stores rather than large chains and there was quite a range of different types. There were certainly a lot of antique shops in evidence. Of course, one man’s antique collection is another man’s junk so I’m not convinced much of the stock on display would find itself featured on the Road Show.

The Tourist Information Office was well organised and even open for visitors, which has become quite unusual in recent years. It is housed in the Nicholson Centre, to the north end of town, with the main Library and an Art exhibition space and museum. It is just by the college so the area here is busy and has a more youthful bustle about it than some other parts of the town. The centre boasts that it is one of the few such buildings still being used for the purpose for which it was originally intended. It offers a free leaflet with an Architectural Town Trail, which we followed. It was interesting, although the focus was on architectural features (clue in the title) and there were quite a few interesting and historical looking buildings we saw that simply didn’t get a mention. One thing that did was the war memorial – it is enormous. At 27m high it is claimed to be one of the tallest in the country

Beyond the town and college to the north the ground drops steeply down into Brough Park, a huge open area of grass and trees with a bandstand on top, tennis courts, playing fields etc. so Leek is certainly not short of recreation spaces of all kinds. Bracken certainly loved Brough Park and by the time we had then walked back to the boat she actually seemed to be tired out for once. We certainly were but then that is normal these days.

Day 16 – Leek to Cheddleton

Thursday morning was absolutely beautiful. Bright & sunny, very warm in the sun with a gentle breeze. After a run with ball for Bracken we set out for a comparatively complicated day.

The first step was to get back to the junction with the main Caldon canal and head towards Stoke On Trent, to the only services between Stoke and Froghall at Bridge 31. We then needed to turn at a winding hole, a bit further down at Bridge 27, in order to come back up past the junction, down through the three locks there, on the way to Froghall. We were planning to stop for the night at a mooring by The Boat Inn at Cheddleton, so we had a few more miles and a couple more locks to go through once we passed the junction for the second time by about three o’clock.

It stayed bright and sunny most of the day, which made for a nice cruise. The Caldon canal continued to be a bit of a challenge through narrow bridges and strange turns, which made it awkward but kept a longish day interesting. To be honest, even going the other way it didn’t seem that much easier to negotiate. I suspect Sue has the right answer when she says our boat is a bit longer than the traffic the canal was designed for. We understand it was built as a tub-boat canal. They would have carried just 3-5 tonnes and been about 20 feet long and have a 6′ 6″ beam. They would have been pulled in groups of half a dozen or so but each one, individually, was a lot shorter than our 59 feet and narrower than our 6’10”. Oh, and they wouldn’t have cared much about the paintwork, of course.

We passed the Cheddleton Flint Mill museum and some pleasant moorings there, bathed in sunshine and shaded by the trees, continuing on towards 48 hour moorings marked at Cheddleton, just past Bridge 44. Up to this point we had been travelling through fairly open country with high ground around us but at a respectful distance. Once past the Flint Mill, however, the route enters a steep defile and passes a huge industrial plant full of tall sheds and towers, heavily defended by a metal fence that seems to go on for ages. The canal is generally running alongside the River Churnet, a name that, for some reason, we found hard to remember, spell or pronounce so we found it easier to refer to it as the Chutney.

The moorings were where they were marked alright. However, they were just big enough for a couple of boats and with one already moored in the middle of it, all we could do was pull up very close behind it with the stern just off the end in the reeds. Above us were the engine sheds of the Churnet Valley Railway, which was making an enormous racket even at five o’clock in the afternoon. The area didn’t feel very pleasant at all. We did debate whether to move on but it wasn’t obvious where we could move on to, at that time of day, so we chose to stay and tie up as best we could. The right decision, for once. Five minutes after we shut the hatch and went below an enormous thunderstorm came through that would have left us completely drenched had we still been on the water.

The storm was heavy but quite brief so I had time to take Bracken out for a walk and look around the area, as well as a pint at The Boat Inn, a nice enough pub but looking a bit dark and damp at the bottom of the now sodden valley. We did climb up through the housing estates on the west bank and found a very large and well equipped recreation ground at the top of the ridge, high enough to still be enjoying the sunshine after the rain and with spectacular views across the valley and beyond.

Day 17 – Cheddleton to Froghall

If we had dodged the rain on Thursday, we were not quite so fortunate on Friday. We left about 10:30 with three locks and five miles to get to the Froghall Tunnel. As expected, the gauge at Flint Mill Lock, a curtain of plastic strips at the exit from the lock, showed that we would be too high and wide to fit through the tunnel. As we left that lock behind the rain began, hard and heavy as we arrived at Froghall, turned in the 65′ winding hole there and moored up for the night. That rain continued for a solid four hours, paused for an hour or so at teatime and returned for a final burst of an hour and a half before it cleared away for the evening about seven o’clock.

In the lull we went down to look at the basin through the other side of the tunnel. There is a nice, modern looking, tea room, a large craft workshop, mooring pontoons in a small basin and a fully functional set of CRT services. It seems a shame that many people can’t get to this haven. It looked a bit dark and dank, dripping from the rain. In better weather, however, it would be a great place to stay for a couple of days.

Day 18 – Froghall to Consall

The rain started again, hammering on the roof, by 06:30 on Saturday. It did not stop for the next eleven hours. Every now and then it seemed there might be signs of it easing but any hope was promptly dashed as it intensified again. In many ways wet weather is hardest on Bracken. It is uncomfortable for us having to accompany her on necessary trips out of doors and reduces our enthusiasm for providing her with real exercise. She doesn’t understand why she isn’t having a long walk and must get very bored sitting inside waiting for us to move.

As one distraction we had the irksome chore of loading our toilet cassette on a trolley and wheeling it through the rain to the services beyond the impassable tunnel. Other than that, we looked for tasks to keep us occupied indoors until the rain stopped, as promised in the morning forecast. Having failed to realise that there was nowhere at all on the Caldon Canal to obtain diesel, we had entered with only half a tank of fuel. A schoolboy error but to be honest, only one of many. Since we burn fuel regardless of whether we move or not, we were quite keen to make some progress back to Stoke. When there was still no sign of the rain stopping at two o’clock we togged up and went for it anyway.

We only planned to go through one lock, cover two or three miles and then stop at a mooring below the Black Lion pub by Consall Nature Park. We didn’t have any real issues and were moored up well before teatime, listening to the rain again.

This is a point where the Caldon joins the River Chutney and coming the other way there are stern warnings about entering the river when it is in flood, as shown by some indicator boards. We did wonder whether, with all this rain we might find ourselves in trouble at the junction but it seemed unlikely that, unpleasant as it was, this period of rainfall could outweigh the months of dry weather we have had so far. We certainly didn’t experience any issue even though we could hear water rushing through the nearby weir with great force.

At about five thirty the rain actually stopped. Although the air was damp and everywhere was saturated it began to become a halfway pleasant evening. We took Bracken up into the Country Park for a good run and then went up to the pub, intending to eat there as a treat after such a dull day. Somewhat to our surprise, as we stood in a virtually empty bar and asked for the menu, we were told that they were fully booked and could not offer us any food. No suggestion of eating in the bar or even at the tables outside – just ‘no’. It seemed very odd for a pub not to want our money but we had a couple of drinks and a chat with some people who, like us were visiting the area for the first time and then went back to the boat to make our own supper.

Day 19 – Consall to Cheddleton

Sunday morning could not have been a greater contrast. Bright and sparkling, clear skies and really warm in the sun. The day stayed fine and dry all day. Despite a couple of periods of threatening looking cloud in the afternoon, the sky always cleared and the sun returned right through to a really nice summer evening.

We were going back up to Cheddleton, to a mooring just beyond the village where there is an old Flint Mill restored and open to visitors most weekends and Bank Holidays. We had been told it was fascinating and informative so we had planned to stop here at lunchtime and pay it a visit. It was closed. Nonetheless, the mooring was very pleasant and the area here much nicer than where we had stopped on the way down so we stayed the night as planned.

On the trip this morning we had begun to understand how, past Cheddleton, you enter a kind of lost valley. Coming from Stoke, the country is fairly open but as you pass the mill the valley deepens and narrows steadily. Look closer and you find all manner of industrial relics, a considerable network of trails and footpaths, several nature reserves and country parks, an RSPB site and the steam railway, of course. Experiencing this on the way back in bright sunlight and having got some understanding of what is there, I am sure we will plan a longer, better organised, expedition through this area in the future.

We took a walk down the towpath to Deep Hayes Country Park anticipating a stroll back on the other side through the Country Park itself. Deep Hayes seems typical of a lot of local authority run places like this north of Watford. There is a lovely area set aside but the facilities there all feel tired, run down and underfunded and there is a sense of much untapped potential. Unfortunately, the ‘Red Route’ was closed and impassable. We ended up following a longer route around the park to get back to Cheddleton. No great hardship, as the sun was shining and Bracken needed the exercise but it did mean the tearoom was closed by the time we got back.

Having stopped here on the return trip we also got a better understanding of Cheddleton itself. It is quite large but seems rather compartmentalised. Here at the mill you are by the old village and this is also the commercial end, with a pub, restaurant, florist, garage etc. and presumably more that we didn’t see. The valley bottom further down towards Froghall where we stayed on the way down seems to be the industrial end with the large plant and the railway. Above that, filling the space between the two, is the dormitory end. Several phases of housing development over the decades take advantage of the steep hillside to offer views and catch the sun above the valley floor, with amenities like the recreation ground and schools etc. No doubt many of the residents are now commuters to places like Stoke On Trent.

Day 20 – Cheddleton to Stockton Brook

Another lovely morning! Clouds began to gather but it stayed fine and dry through the locks at the junction with the Leek Arm, past the CRT services at Park Lane Bridge and the mooring at Post Bridge close to the local Spar & the Co-op. We stopped for lunch here, which could have been a mistake as it was much greyer when we set off again. In the end, while we did get a few very brief spots of rain on the way down the five locks at Stockton Brook, we moored up just past the bottom of the flight still in the dry. Still only three o’clock but this was as close to Stoke On Trent as we were willing to spend the night.

Bracken had had quite a good walk along the towpath in the morning and another accidental swim having got over-excited trying to make friends with a huge flock of Canada Geese in the middle of the canal. There was still time for another walk with a stroll up to the old disused railway. This I find unusual in that it still has the metal rails in place on concrete ties. I should have thought the metal had some value in that quantity, perhaps at the scrap metal yards in Leek. Maybe the cost of recovery is greater than its current worth or is it possible that the Chutney Valley Railway hope to reinstate this line in the future?

Back to the boat well before teatime but as we settled inside the threatened rain finally came about four o’clock. Living in a steel box lets you hear when it is hammering down. If you can’t hear it that doesn’t mean it has stopped, just eased a little or turned from downpour to drizzle. Worse still, with the rain came a sudden deterioration in mobile broadband signal we depend on for, well, pretty much every form of entertainment. We have a few DVDs we could watch but it is surprising how often you decide this is an opportunity to look into something that you have been thinking about or you think “hold on, I’ll just look that up” and then realise you can’t do anything. It is like the day the Google died.

Day 21 – Etruria Junction

Once again we were on something of a self-imposed deadline. We were due to spend a few days back in Surrey, including a meal with old colleagues from L&G on Thursday evening. We had booked in to the Festival Park Marina at Stoke On Trent, the only one we could find there, so that we could leave the boat for a few days. We would still need to get the car, so would have to take a train back to Leamington Spa and a cab from there to Long Itchington to pick it up and then head south. To make it a bit easier we had decided to berth the boat on Tuesday, travel home on Wednesday and head down on Thursday itself in time for the meal. We could also then say the house had been occupied and reset the clock on our home insurance.

Festival Park Marina had originally told us that they could take us easily and we should call a week or so in advance. We duly rang them in advance to be told that they knew nothing about us and had no room for a boat of our size. There followed a discussion amongst themselves, culminating in their agreeing they could squeeze us in after all and they took our details.

Apparently, when we first rang, they also told us there would be no mains electricity on shore line, something I know Sue had relayed to me but I had managed to let go completely over my head. When she reminded me it was a bit of a shock. We would be away for a week. With no shore line to charge the batteries and no-one running the engine, the fridge and freezer would be drawing power and the batteries could drain down. The solar panels might well maintain the charge but not without any sun. The forecast was for wall to wall torrential rain and cloudy skies for the next couple of weeks. I was looking forward to getting the rapidly emptying diesel tank filled here, at last. Now it looked as if we had another resources crisis looming.

The forecast was correct – rain through the night and still going at six thirty in the morning. We really wanted to get to the marina and sort things out there so spotting a short lull at nine o’clock we set out. The break lasted maybe half an hour before it started up again, heavier than before. We had seen pictures of Caterham in flood the night before so either this wasn’t as personal as it seemed or the weather hadn’t caught up with our change of address.

As we came back down into Stoke On Trent you could feel the city closing in. You come to warehouses or factories that are derelict and closed down, all broken windows and bricked up doorways. You can’t help humming ‘Dirty Old Town’ as you pass them. There is more regeneration going on here though, just around the corner are a few acres of modern houses and nice new apartments. In the middle of these, every bit as obsolete as the factories but somehow thought more worthy of preservation, are two large bottle kilns, cleaner than the derelict sites but sprouting weeds and lichen from every crevice. More industrial buildings follow that one assumes are much the same. Looking more closely however you see odd buildings stuck terraced in with the ruins that have intact windows and the odd faint light visible through the dirty glass.

Eastwood Potteries does look fully open for business, however. Lots of cars in the car park and lights on all over the structure. At the moment we passed most of the staff were standing outside watching a couple of fire wardens wielding fire extinguishers over some smoking material on the ground. Was this a real emergency? It’s hard to say. Looking at the weather though, it seemed just the right day for some joker in facilities to say: “Let’s have a fire drill today”.

There was a lot of activity at Hanley Park. There were several teams of workers out, despite the conditions, clearing unmanaged undergrowth on one side, working on the formal gardens on the other and another group working on Bridge 5A and the stone balustrade around it. It really looks as though they are trying very hard to make something truly worthwhile here. We did have to wonder how long it would take to overcome the reputation it has garnered over the years so that people felt comfortable to visit and stay overnight.

We made it down to the junction and round to the marina in good time. Something of a narrow entrance but we managed to get round the turn and line it up pretty well. Sadly, there turned out to be a closed lift bridge across it. Sue jumped off the bow to open it up while I tried to hold station just outside but it turned out to be locked. So now she had to go and try to find someone to talk to, while I was hanging about broadside-on to any canal traffic, being blown about by the wind and the ongoing torrential rain, under the full gaze of a crowded Toby Carvery overlooking the marina entrance. Sure enough the people in the marina office didn’t have us booked in and had no idea we were coming!

In some ways, despite the incompetent booking arrangements, they were very good. As we were starting afresh they asked if we needed electricity so Sue said yes, definitely. That gave them more of a headache but rather than just saying ‘no’, it only took about quarter of an hour for them to work out where we could moor, come out into the rain and move two boats to clear the berth for us and help us to tie up. We were right by the diesel pump ready to be able to fill up in the morning (I didn’t ask “why not now?”) We had shoreline power and a hose right there for water. With this abundance of resources we were at least able to have as many lights on as we wanted, run the central heating to get things warm & dry and put the washer / dryer on for several cycles all afternoon – luxury!

We had hoped that, by the afternoon, there would be break in the rain. We were close to the Retail Park on the one hand and the Etruria Industrial Museum was only a short walk away so, if it eased, we could get out for a change of scene. No such luck, the downpour continued. I honestly can’t recall a day when, prolonged heavy rainfall having set in at the beginning, it didn’t eventually stop within a few hours and certainly less than twelve. By the end of today it had been raining solidly for at least eighteen hours with perhaps a half hour pause in the morning. The forecasters promise more of the same for the foreseeable future so maybe now is a good time to leave the boat for a few days. Given what they are saying about how long it could last it might even be worth thinking about extending that for a little longer.

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